Innovative Pedagogy Interview Series

A Conversation with Assistant Professor of Biology, Adam Haberman

Adam Haberman

Could you provide us a little background information on who you are, Dr. Haberman? How long have you been at USD, where did you receive your education, your academic and current research interests, and what classes you teach?

I am starting my third year here at USD.  I received by B.S. from the University of Texas at Austin and my Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  I did postdoctoral research at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and taught at Oberlin College before coming here.  I teach classes in Cell Biology and Genetics, and now a class on Research Methods where I get to focus on Bioinformatics. 

For those of us not involved in the sciences, could you tell us generally what Genomics and Bioinformatics are?

Genomics is the study of all of the genes in an organism.  With the explosion in DNA sequencing technology in recent years, it is possible to ask questions like, “What are all of the genes that are involved in heart function?” or “Which genes get activated in response to stress?” Our ability to do large studies like this is growing every year, and produces tons of data.  Bioinformatics uses software to get useful biological information out of all this data.

How did you come to be involved in the Genomics Education Partnership (GEP)?

The GEP started with a group of Drosophila (fly) researchers, and they talked about it every year at the annual Fly Meeting.  When I first heard about it, I was still working at a medical school and not with undergraduates, but I knew that I wanted to be a part of this project. 

What are the benefits of incorporating GEP research projects into your biology courses, and is this drastically different from the ways biology/genetics is “traditionally” taught at the undergrad level?

In many lab classes, students do experiments that have been done before.  They focus on trying to get the right answer, instead of trying to learn the concepts the instructor designed the experiment to highlight.  In GEP projects, no one has done the work before.  There is no right answer.  Students analyze the data and make and propose a theory that matches the data.  The standard they are held to is, “Is this theory supported by the evidence?”  They have all the tools they need to produce publication-quality analysis, and I hold them to that standard.  They have to understand the core concepts to defend their work.  I think this promotes a much deeper understanding of the science.

How do you incorporate the GEP into your classroom and labs? Are the student gains worth the time put into incorporating this innovative pedagogy.

The gains are absolutely worth the time.  I use these projects as the entirety of a semester-long lab course.  I could cover more material by cutting back on GEP projects and adding other labs, but I would rather give students time to dig deeply into their projects.  As they become experts on the DNA in their projects, they develop more questions that I can help them explore. 

How do you choose student to be involved in the GEP?

Any student can be a part of the GEP.  I don’t screen at all.  One of the nice aspects of the GEP is that it is adaptable to students at different levels.  Some of the schools in the GEP are community colleges and open enrollment universities, where students are often less experienced than our students.  We have developed some additional resources to help beginning students get involved.  For me, I just have to work with each student so everyone gets the support they need.

The abstract states that “…performing primary research improves student gains in understanding of the research process.” Besides knowledge of content, what other skills and qualities are students learning through the research process? Additionally, how are they assessed and how do students demonstrate these skills?

We analyze not just the students’ understanding of the course material, but also their attitudes about science, at the beginning and the end of the semester.  The changes we see in their confidence and their understanding of the scientific method are equal to what people see in students that spend a summer doing research full-time.

Would you like to mention anything else?

One exciting part of this project is the opportunity to test our theories about how pedagogy works.  With more than 70 institutions teaching with the same materials, we have an opportunity see how various differences is teaching methods correlate with student outcomes.  We are now recording the types and frequencies of active learning methods used by GEP instructors over the semester.  The preliminary results already indicate than increased frequency of active learning techniques results in improved student learning and attitudes.  This year we published a research article on chromosome evolution that could not have been completed without our GEP students.  People are still much better than machines at the work we do in these projects.  The article combined the work of undergraduates over three years of work, and had 940 undergraduate authors from 64 institutions.  This kind of work could not be done in a single lab, and creates a unique resource for the scientific community.  These projects are good science as well as good pedagogy.

Thank you for taking the time to meet with us, Dr. Haberman We hope you have a fantastic fall semester.

-Johnny Bobé II

Click here to view The Genomics Education Partnership abstract.